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Four Legged Heroes: A K9 Veterans Day Deep Dive

 

While there have been a lot of educated guesses, there is little proof of when dogs were first used as a tool for military forces. Some researchers have said the Romans were the first to use them in combat, while others point to the Egyptians around the 4th Millennium. Whatever a person chooses to believe, we know that humans have relied on their canine counterparts for thousands of years to help them combat enemies by detecting enemies, detecting weapons, attacking enemy personnel, serving as couriers, serving as resupply animals, and providing numerous other ways to help man during conflict.

The use of dogs in the U.S. military is a little clearer than it is in world history. On March 13, 1942, the U.S. Army established the War Dog Program and dogs have been in military service since then. It is why March 13 is known as K9 Veterans Day. The day is set aside to honor and commemorate the service and sacrifices of American military working dogs throughout history.

The contributions of American military working dogs cannot be overstated. In just about every American war since World War I (some might argue that dogs were used in the Revolutionary War), military working dogs have helped turned the tide for American soldiers on the ground and that is a major reason why we celebrate K9 Veterans Day on March 13.

Aside from K9 Veterans Day, in 2019 the U.S. Postal Service issued stamps commemorating the service of military working dogs. The stamps included the four most common breeds used in the U.S. military — the German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherd and the Labrador Retriever. It should be noted, however, that no official legislation has been passed by the federal government recognizing K9 Veterans Day as an official holiday. Some states have passed legislation recognizing K9 Veterans Day as a state holiday.

All U.S. military working dogs are a part of the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog program headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland since 1958. It is the world’s largest canine training center. There are approximately 900 dogs assigned to the working dog training program.

The mission of the 341st Training Squadron, a U.S. Air Force unit, is to provide trained military working dogs and handlers for the Department of Defense, other government agencies and allies through training, logistical, veterinary support and research and development for security efforts worldwide.

According to the Air Force, the first Air Force sentry dog school was activated at Showa Air Station, Japan, in 1952. In 1953, the second school was opened at Wiesbaden, West Germany. The Army continued to train and supply sentry dogs to Air Force units in the United States until the Sentry Dog Training Branch of the Department of Security Police Training was established at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in October 1958.

In 1966, four sentry dog teams from Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, were given patrol dog training by the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. The additional advantages and capabilities of more tolerant and controllable dogs were quickly proven, and the patrol dog training program expanded. By 1969, the Air Force adopted the patrol dog as the standard military working dog.

To combat the growing use of marijuana and other drugs in Southeast Asia, a drug detection course was added in January 1971 to the military working dog program. Based on the programs merit and success, the marijuana detector dog program expanded introducing cocaine, hashish and heroin to the program to expand the dog's capabilities. Also in 1971, the Air Force began training dogs to detect explosives.

In 2005, a new type of detector dog was introduced into the Defense Department in response the rising threat of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aptly referred to as Specialized Search Dogs (or SSDs), these highly skilled counter-terrorist search assets are trained to detect arms, ammunition, and explosives – both of the conventional and homemade varieties.

They differ from their standard Explosive Detector Dog (EDD) counterparts in the fact that they are far more independent and work primarily off-leash via voice and directional commands issued by the handler. In early 2010, the 341st began assisting the Marine Corps in training Combat Tracker Dog Teams to recognize and follow a human quarry. This is the first program of its kind since the end of the Vietnam War. Upon deployment, Combat Trackers assist commanders by tracking enemy insurgents, IED makers, and snipers. This force multiplier offers the abilities to both stop current attacks and prevent future ones.

Currently, there are about 2,500 military working dogs assigned throughout the world in the U.S. military. The cost associated with training a military working dog can be up to $150,000 and dogs undergo a very thorough assessment before being chosen. About 50 percent of those dogs that are chosen make it through training. According to the DOD, most dogs that complete the 120-day program qualify to be dual-purpose dogs, trained in patrol work and to sniff out explosives or detect drugs. Military working dog handlers attend an 11-week course to become dog handlers.

Once ready for field work, dogs work with their handlers and they are expected to deter and detect. They are trained in narcotics, explosives and intruder detection, and those duties often place them in harm’s way. It is no wonder why the country celebrates K9 Veterans Day.

If you’re in the San Antonio area or in Texas and willing to take a drive, be sure to visit the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument at Lackland. This is a great place to recognize K9 Veterans Day and the national monument represents all handlers, dogs and veterinary support from all military service branches.

The monument grounds include a 3,000 square foot granite plaza, granite pedestals, granite history wall, granite benches and water fountain. The granite pedestals have large bronze statues of dogs and handlers. One of the inscriptions reads: “Dedicated to all U.S. Military Working Dog Handlers and their beloved dogs who defend America from harm, defeat the enemy, and save lives.”

You can bring your pup too. There is a water fountain of a sitting military member giving water to his dog in his combat helmet and when it is running it offers fresh water to visiting dogs.

Two more ways to celebrate K9 Veterans Day are to consider adopting a former military working dog. According to the Air Force, dogs up for adoption are typically those that retired from being a dog handler’s aid, have medical conditions and couldn’t continue training; or had a lack of progression during training and couldn’t continue.

You can also celebrate K9 Veterans Day by joining the 341st foster program where families can foster a puppy from age six weeks to seven months. To foster, the family must:

  • Have a home with a secure 6-foot fence
  • No children under 5 years-old
  • No more than three dogs
  • Attend monthly socialization and training sessions
  • Lives within two hours of San Antonio

For more information regarding adoptions, email MWD.adoptions@us.af.mil; and for more information on the foster program, email MWD.foster@us.af.mil

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